Contradiction and the Stubborn Bystander

by Esther Sunkyung Klein

THE CHINESE TERM for contradiction that we have chosen as the theme of this volume, maodun 矛盾, is a figurative one: the image at its heart is that of a spear and a shield. The origin of the expression lies in a story transmitted to us by the philosopher Master Han Fei 韓非子 (d.233 BCE), though he may not have invented it. The story goes that a weapons dealer was drumming up business in the marketplace. Holding up one of his shields, he bragged that it was so sturdy no spear could pierce it. A short while later, he raised one of his spears and bragged that it was so sharp no shield could withstand it. An attentive bystander then asked him, ‘What would happen if you used your spear to pierce your shield?’ 以子之矛陷子之楯, 何如.1 The weapons dealer had no way of responding and the expression maodun (or sometimes zixiang maodun 自相矛盾) has passed into the language, with the meaning of ‘self-contradictory’ or, eventually, ‘internally conflicted’.

Wishful thinking often leads people to propound two different beliefs that, logically, cannot both be true. Master Han was using the parable of the spear and the shield to criticise Confucians of his day for exaggerating the accomplishments of the legendary sage kings — ancient precursors to modern-day cults of personality. Confucians claimed the Sage King Yao 堯, among his many brilliant deeds and virtues, had ‘made the people peaceful and civilised’ 平章百姓 and ‘harmonised all the myriad states’ 協和萬邦.2 Meanwhile, traditions about the Sage King Shun 舜, Yao’s eventual successor, say that before he became king he resolved border disputes among the tillers of Mount Li (in today’s Shanxi province) and conflicts over fishing rights along the Yellow River purely by the force of his virtuous example. How could societal conflicts be so severe that Shun’s deeds should count as marvellous, wondered Master Han, if the realm had already been fully harmonised by the sagely governance of Yao?3 It is in this context that Master Han proposed the parable of the weapons dealer.

Readers of the parable tend to focus on the embarrassment of the weapons dealer, whose speechlessness is admittedly very satisfying. His ideological descendants learned from his mistakes, however. When robust debate in the court of the Han Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r.157–141 BCE) brought out contradictions in the theory of Heaven’s Mandate — contradictions that threatened to shake the very legitimacy of imperial rule — the emperor silenced the debaters with the words: ‘No-one would say you have an uncultivated palate if you eat meat but don’t eat [toxic] horse liver. And no-one would call you stupid if you discuss learning without discussing the changing of the Mandate’ 食肉不食馬肝, 不為不知味; 言學者無言湯武受命, 不為愚.4 The historian adds that no-one ever dared to publicly debate the matter again. It is worth remembering, perhaps, that the weapons dealer in the story is holding a spear. Even if his spear and shield are not quite what they are cracked up to be, they are still weapons.

Master Han himself — one of history’s great apologists for the absolute power of the monarch — suffered an ironic fate: he was imprisoned and killed in an ancient version of bei zisha 被自殺 (‘being suicided’) at the soon-regretted whim of the most powerful monarch of the age.5

Chinese soldiers brandishing sturdy shields and spears
Source: Judith Bluepool, Flickr

Those who deal in personality cults, impenetrable shields and omni-penetrating spears are not always kind even to their supporters. They also exploit our natural tendency to tolerate and even enjoy exaggeration. Whether or not we approve, their talk is rousing. The Communist Party of China (CPC) can claim that at the very outset of its reign, it ‘put an end … to the rule of a handful of exploiters over the working people’, while in the same document, the November 2021 Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century, it also congratulates itself on having more recently ‘intensified efforts to address corruption that occurs on the people’s doorsteps … and root out all corrupt officials’.6 That is just what you do if you are holding so sturdy a shield and so sharp a spear. If no-one has the power to make you test one against the other, who is to say a contradiction even exists?

It is the attentive bystander who says it, or writes it or, in the last resort, silently witnesses and preserves in memory the events of lived experience. In Emperor Jing’s court, it was the historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 who recorded the debate about the question of imperial legitimacy and he also recorded the moment of its silencing. He left a record of that debate even if it might have seemed futile in the moment. Attentive bystanders are the heroes of stories like that of the court debate or Master Han’s tale of the weapons dealer.

Confucius’s follower Master Meng 孟子 (372–289 BCE), also known in English as Mencius, once claimed: ‘It would be better not to have documents than to believe everything they say’ 盡信書, 則不如無書. He objected to an account of the virtuous King Wu of Zhou 周武王 (r. 1042–1021 BCE) battling the irredeemably wicked last king of the Shang 商 dynasty (1600–1046 BCE). There it was recorded that the blood of King Wu’s enemies ran so deep that ‘pestles floated in it’ 血流漂杵.7 ‘The benevolent leader has no enemies under heaven’ 仁人無敵於天下, Mencius argued, and as ‘the most benevolent was attacking the most unbenevolent’ 以至仁伐至不仁, there could not have been such bloodshed.8

The ancient document as we have it today — perhaps rectified in response to Mencius’s objections — specifies that the blood was shed by those in the vanguard of the Shang army turning to flee and fighting their way back through the ranks of their comrades.9 The first-century philosopher Wang Chong 王充 (27–c.97 CE), a great proponent of plain and literal speaking, is just as sceptical about this version. It is not just the military implausibility he objects to either, but also the physical implausibility: blood, even a great deal of blood, just does not work that way; it soaks into the earth. Besides, why would soldiers be carrying pestles into battle in the first place?10

We can laugh at the flat-footed literalism of the stubborn bystander, wink at each other and shrug at how he just does not get it; it is a metaphor! Or, like the CPC is wont to do, we can complain that by rudely puncturing the overblown rhetoric of culturally sacred scriptures, the bystander is hurting the feelings of those who propound them. All the same, such literal arguments do have the power to make other bystanders realise there must be a literal truth. The pestles either were there or were not there; they either floated or did not float. Either the shield can withstand the spear or the spear can pierce the shield. It is possible to lose the mandate by being too cruel a ruler or it is not. Whatever the case, it is up to bystanders to notice — and speak — the truth.